Motherhood in The Institution of Slavery 

Categories: Motherhood

In the novel Beloved by Toni Morrison the theme of motherhood is explored in relation to the terrors of slavery. Stories of mothers in the book, such as Baby Suggs and Sethe unravel the warped relationships between mothers and children because of the things the endure by being slaves. The slavery culture in beloved separates children and mothers both physically and emotionally. In the novel the torture that Sethe deals with being a slave is shown immensely throughout. Her children also play a role in her struggle.

When Sethe was pregnant she was molested and beaten and had to give birth on a boat. She even had to endure the most horrible fate a mother could possibly imagine and killed her child to save her from slavery. When Sethe moves to 124, the ghost of Beloved follows her continuing to torment the family.

When Sethe was growing up she didn’t know what it was like to have a mother figure. Her biological mom was always out on the plantation working in the fields, so another woman was her main guidance in life.

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Because of the loss of connection with her real mom it distorted her expectations on what motherhood should be like. When asked, Sethe tells a story to Beloved and Denver of one distinct memory of her mother. She describes to them the memory,“[she] lifted her breast and pointed under it. Right on her rib was a circle and a cross burnt right in the skin. She said, ‘This is your ma’am.

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This,’ and she pointed. ‘I am the only one who got this mark now. The rest dead. If something happens to me and you can’t tell me by my face, you can know me by this mark.” (Morrison, 73). She did not know it then but the mark underneath her mothers breast signified ownership. Branding slaves was a method to show ownership but also damaged the slaves horribly psychologically. Due to Sethe childhood and her misunderstanding of motherhood and the disconnection she was made to felt from everyone it was very difficult to fully love her children when she was a slave as she says, “Look like I loved em more after I got here. Or maybe I couldn’t love em proper in Kentucky because they wasn’t mine to love.

But when I got here, when I jumped down off that wagon, there wasn’t nobody I couldn’t love if I wanted to” (Morrison, 190). This shows that because they were technically owned by someone else she felt that she couldn’t love them one hundred percent as her own. Sethe started to show a lot of love to beloved which worried Paul D because of her old life as he says, “Risky, thought Paul D, very risky. For a used-to-be-slave woman to love anything that much was dangerous, especially if it was her children she had settled on to love. The best thing, he knew, was to love just a little bit; everything, just a little bit, so when they broke its back, or shoved it in a croaker sack, well, maybe you’d have a little love left for the next one” (Morrison, 45). This expresses Paul D underlying fear of being sold back into slavery and not getting attatched to the people he is close with in fear of loosing them and that’s why he is worried about Sethe. He knows the dangers that come with the of love. The emotion is so strong that when too much is shown and then gets taken way it’s like death itself. Nothing is permanent in slavery and when you add ove into the mix just runs the risk of getting hurt even more. Sethe’s experience being mothered and mothering highlights the demoralizing effects slavery has on a child and mother. Through Sethe’s own childhood Morrison demonstrates how her actions in the present are influenced by her own upbringing and how the cycle translates between slaves and their children.

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Motherhood in The Institution of Slavery . (2021, Aug 17). Retrieved from

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